“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” — Romans 12:1

My non-Catholic friend once spoke for the baffled and bewildered (Christian, Catholic and not): she had asked me to explain the purpose of fasting. The question was not only reasonable but relevant. Without knowing it, she had brought to the fore the contrast between Christ and a society whose gastronomic tendencies belie the fact that it’s cravings for entertainment have been built on the bones of anorexic ideals.

The historian Robert Taft once wrote that “Today among contemporary religious one hears more of gourmet cooking than of fasting — a striking counter symbol to anyone even superficially acquainted with the spiritual literature at the origins of religious life.” I might add that among contemporary religious one also hears more of feelings than of sacrifice. Yet this is no surprise. Relational feelings, the “high”, the “honeymoon”, these are things that have rightfully earned their place as the bed-buddies of reckless eating—they’ve both taken board in the mansion of ego.

In the case of food, the indiscretion seems somehow slightly more excusable. We eat to “feel.” Therefore, food is nothing but an idol of feeling. The fruits of its idolatry are felt as the dopaminergic experience we call “savory” or “incredibly edible” Yet when the great fortress of love finds as its foundations those first feelings that twitch and tickle the heart, turning it toward quixotic notions that even the irrational is possible, a different idolatry has taken hold. Here then, not only is there worship of the self for pleasure’s sake, but “love” that’s not what it claims to be. The cross of sacrifice, the self-giving that’s quintessential to the Christian spirit, gets turned on its head (but not for the martyr’s baptism of blood, itself an icon of self-giving, but for a reorientation to the universe in which one’s self is the sun and center.

Abstract as these realities may seem, the results tend to reveal themselves concretely enough. The nightmare and crisis that defines marriages today depends on whether couples can balance their relationship on the head of a pin called “loving feelings.” Once they no longer feel such infatuated longings, “the flame is out,” and the curtain closes on an often short-lived theater of marital misery. Like the two month old milk that inspires indigestion, or the ragged CD that fails to quicken pulses to its beat, spouses who no longer spark the addictive feelings and force of romantic appeal get chucked with whatever else no longer serves our purposes.

Love that’s based on feelings is good enough for merry-weather and crumpets, but it crumbles quickly when subjected to the crucible of life. Struggle, pain, starved affections, misunderstanding, misgivings—such things can be the companions of authentic love. These all provide impetus for one to exercise a will independent of feelings. This is love: to decide to honor a spouse who is poor, or sick, or worse, and all of this, even into the dark night that is absent of sense, soul and feeling.

This was what Christ crystallized with the totality of his being. Ascending the hill of Calvary, he puttered on by the fire of unquenchable love, not by the smoke and fumes of some lower passion. There was nothing to gain for him but what he gained for us. This insistence of his will, bereft of good feelings, was a totally and purely love-inspired act.

Since Jesus leaves us with the injunction to “love one another as I have loved you” loving as he did must therefore lie within the realm of grace. Yet this is only made real by the effort of conscious and constant choices. To do this is daily and difficult. It defies our natural inclinations and it requires the discipline of practice, which is what I believe fasting affords.

Here again is Taft as quoted by Adam DeVille: penance is "not a turning in on self, not a concentration on self-discipline as some sort of spiritual athletics, but an openness to new life, and through it openness to others, the end to which it is all supposed to lead." This openness is operative in and definitive of the love to which Christ calls us. So as fasting invokes our willingness to turn away from ourselves, it also prepares us to learn how to will our way into virtue’s light by enacting God’s love working within us.


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